Vol. 2, Issue 3, January 20, 2004
Montana High Court rules Tanks Have to Go
In a landmark decision capping a bitterly contested court battle, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the state Department of Motor Vehicles exceeded its authority when it decided in 2000 to permit civilians to register tanks as sport utility vehicles.
"We are not questioning the inalienable right of our citizens to own or operate a motor vehicle of their choosing which meets applicable federal and state safety standards," said Chief Justice Karla Gray in the majority decision. "However, the issue is rather one of protecting our state's infrastructure, including its roadways, which represent a substantial investment on the part of the state."
Montana, a state known for its rugged, mountainous terrain and fiercely individualistic population, was one of the first regions to seize upon the sport utility vehicle phenomenon that swept the nation in the mid-1990s. However, a few Montana residents soon found even the largest of SUVs inadequate.
"Now, the Chevy Suburban's all right," said Billings resident Tom Dwyer. "But soon as everyone had one, the advantage of being in a Suburban kind of disappeared.
"Coulda gone with a Humvee, I suppose," added Dwyer. "But heck, some of us figured, why go halfway? If you really wanna be safe, ain't much better than an American tank."
The controversial trend started as a promotion at the All-Star Auto Center in Billings, which parked a tank in its lot in 1998 as part of an Independence Day sale. To the surprise of the dealer, fifty-five people asked about purchasing the tank.
"Hey, the customer's always right," said All-Star owner Milo Brookstone. "We couldn't afford not to follow up on this interest. Profit margins on tanks are substantial." Within weeks, All-Star Auto Center became the only authorized civilian distributor of the Abrams M1-A1 battle tank. By 2000, over 500 had been sold, and the Montana Department of Motor Vehicles officially decided to classify the Abrams as a sport utility vehicle.
This is when the state became concerned.
"These things weigh 70 tons," said David Galt, director of the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), which is responsible for road construction and maintenance. "Compare that to a fully loaded 18-wheeler truck at only 40 tons. Plus, the tanks have metal treads. They were absolutely wreaking havoc on our roadways." After highway repairs in Billings skyrocketed in 2001, MDT brought suit against the DMV, alleging that the DMV should never have permitted ownership of the Abrams M1-A1 in the first place. The Montana Supreme Court apparently agreed.
"All we have to do now," said Galt, "is to convince nearly 2,000 Montanans to peacefully surrender their tanks. Any volunteers?"